Wednesday, March 28, 2012
– Earl Scruggs, 88, a seminal banjo player who brought the instrument and bluegrass much prominence, died Wednesday at a Nashville hospital of natural causes. He was noted for perfecting and popularizing a three-finger banjo-picking style along with being in Bill Monroe's band and in the duo Flatt & Scruggs.
The banjo man played his instrument as a lead, something that brought it to the fore.
Scruggs was born in North Carolina on Jan. 6, 1924. His father, George Elam Scruggs, was a farmer and a bookkeeper, while his mother, Lula Ruppe Scruggs played the organ. His father died when he was only four, the same year he began playing the banjo, something he continued doing throughout his youth.
At 10, Scruggs developed his three fingers style known as Scruggs style picking, although he did not invent the style. The first banjo Scruggs owned was purchased from Montgomery-Ward mail order company for $10.95. By 15, Scruggs appeared on radio with a group called the Carolina Wildcats and also the Morris Brothers.
He worked in a textile mill and on a farm to support his mother before becoming a full-time musician. Scruggs eventually moved to Nashville where his career would take off. At one point, he played with Lost John Miller and the Allied Kentuckians, but Miller soon stopped touring, and Scruggs was out of work.
Jim Shumate, a fiddler Scruggs knew, was a member of Monroe's band and recommended Earl to take over for Stringbean, who had left the Blue Grass Boys.
Scruggs joined Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in 1945 in a line-up that also included Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise and bassist Cedric Rainwater. Flatt and Scruggs left three years later to form the Foggy Mountain Boys. They went on their own due to low pay and long travel. Monroe did not speak with them for the next 20 years.
By the end of 1948, they were recording for Mercury Records and played a regular gig at WCYB in Bristol, Tenn.
Flatt & Scruggs later had a daily early morning radio show on the powerful station WSM in Nashville with Martha White Flour a sponsor. Two years later, they became members of the Grand Ole Opry.A syndicated television show drew millions.
The duo later was known as Flatt & Scruggs, playing together until they broke up in 1969. While considered a bluegrass band, they also made it onto the country charts. They had a big hit along with Jerry Scoggins on "The Ballad of Jed Clampett, the theme song for "The Beverly Hillbillies," their only song to reach the top of the country charts.
Appearances on television and at the Newport Folk Festival brought them further acclaim.
In 1969, they won a Grammy for Scruggs' instrumental Foggy Mountain Breakdown. The song was used in the 1967 movie "Bonnie and Clyde." They broke up that same year with Scruggs forming the Earl Scruggs Revue, featuring several of his sons. Scruggs was more interested in experimenting musically, while Flatt preferred sticking with bluegrass.
The Revue mainly played acoustic using drums and electric bass. They also expanded to rock, while mixing traditional songs and folk rock covers with Scruggs' instrumentals. Gary Scruggs was on lead vocals, bass and harmonica, while Randy was on electric and acoustic guitars.
The Revue later would include Vassar Clements on fiddle and Josh Graves on Dobro. The Revue recorded for Columbia releasing "Earl Scruggs - His Family & Friends" in 1971. Friends included Bob Dylan, Joe Baez, doc Watson and The Byrds.
The group played on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1972 classic, "Will the Circle Be Broken."
Country and bluegrass purists never fully bought into the Revue. The band recorded for Columbia throughout the 1970s and often played colleges. Back problems caused Scruggs to leave the road in 1980. In 1985, Flatt and Scruggs were elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Scruggs continued recording and playing for the rest of his life. In 2002, he won a second Grammy for a 2001 recording of Foggy Mountain Breakdown. The track featured Steve Martin on second banjo solo, Vince Gill and Albert Lee on electric guitar solos, Paul Shaffer on piano, Leon Russell on organ and Marty Stuart on mandolin. His last recording was "The Ultimate Collection/Live at the Ryman" in 2008 on Rounder, taken from a concert the previous year.
Scruggs' wife, Louise, who was also his manager and quite important to the growth of his career, died in 2006. His sons, Gary and Randy, survive him.